Most of the South Texas citrus orchards are gone, taken over by shopping centers and housing developments, but the Engert Orchard is not only hanging on, but is prospering. Carl Engert took over from his father who had taken over from his father, so it's a family tradition dating back to 1926, when Carl's grandfather first planted the trees.
“We've been through hurricanes, freezes and drought,” says Carl. After devastating freezes hit South Texas, he chose to replant when many other farmers gave up and sold their land. He feels that the whole family, pitching in to work, is the only way they have made it.
He and wife, Gracie, son, Jason, and daughter, Eva, are the mainstays of the 57-acre enterprise. And he admits, “We love the business. We're never going to get rich, but we make a pretty good living. But you've got to run it and do it yourself — cut out the middleman — to make a profit.”
Cutting out the middleman means retailing the fruit themselves — they sell 80 percent of their crop from their Alamo fruit market. Gracie handles the bookkeeping. Contract pickers are the only outside help they hire.
The Engerts have been lucky to have good friends. “It's the Winter Texans who come back year after year who keep us going,” says Engert. These winter visitors appreciate the fact that they are getting fruit fresh off the trees. They gather at the Engert place like it's a second home, sitting down and chatting with the owners and each other. Many of them have been farmers themselves; others have run small businesses.
“We've learned a lot from these people,” says Engert.
“One of them even gave us a commercial juicer.” So this year the fruit stand will be selling orange juice, by the glass or quart, for the first time.
Up to 20 percent of their citrus is packaged and shipped, mostly as gift fruit. “We even make our own labels,” says Gracie, but admits that shipping gets expensive, especially when fruit goes north. The cost of shipping, in fact, can exceed the value of the citrus.
“We also give away a lot,” says Carl, “more than five tons of fruit in a season to food pantries and other organizations that feed the hungry.”
They harvest fruit a little later than some Valley growers. “We don't have facilities to force the fruit to color up,” says Gracie, referring to a gassing process in an airtight room that turns green citrus yellow or orange. Some day they hope to be able to afford to color their fruit.
Replant after freezes
“There are lots of expenses in an orchard,” says Gracie. After each of the freezes in the Rio Grande Valley, they had to replant. And it takes four to eight years before the trees produce. The trees take a lot of care, and since insurance is calculated by the size of the trees, “The larger and more valuable the trees get, the more expensive the insurance.”
The Engerts say luck helps. Last year when the sapote fly quarantined many neighboring orchards, the Engerts' 57 acres was exempted, allowing them to pick up a lot of business at the end of the season when the Winter Texans were returning home with carloads of fruit.
They are optimistic about the upcoming season. “The rains have been a blessing,” says Carl. “Our fruit is getting to be a good size and is sweetening up.”